Most cats congregate near channel features different from the norm — brush piles, points jutting to a drop-off, adjacent humps, stump fields, dead snags, or pockets cutting into the bank. Big cats seem to prefer deeper water at the base of channel ledges, if oxygen levels are adequate. They also gather in the outside turns of channel bends, near junctions of two or more channels and on deep channel edges in or near dam tailwaters.
In the middle of March, my favorite catfish river is churning after several days of heavy rain. The temperature is 55 degrees, but a stiff breeze kept the wind chill much lower.
A month later the riverbanks will be lined with anglers fishing for a variety of species. But today only two fishermen brave the chill air.
“Fish biting?” I ask the other guy when I arrive.
“See for yourself,” he says, nodding toward a stringer stretched out in the water.
I grab the nylon cord and pull it up. A 10-pound channel catfish and several more 3- to 5-pounders thrash the water.
“Reckon they are,” I say. “Hitting shad, I suppose.”
“Yep. The cats are stacked up in here eating them.”
A few throws of my cast net and a dozen shad crowd my bait bucket. I cut one in three pieces — head, body and tail — thread the mid-section on my hook, and cast toward the dam.
Early-spring catfishing is sometimes a waiting game, but not today. The channel cats are in a feeding frenzy. As soon as my line swings tight in the current, a nice one nails the bait and is landed. On the second cast, I lose a sizeable fish. The third and fourth casts produce two more catfish — a 6-pounder and a 7-pounder.
In the same time span, the elderly gentleman seated next to me catches three more channel cats, including one whopper pushing 15 pounds.”I caught my biggest channel cat ever on March 3rd last year,” the man says. “It weighed 22 pounds. The year before that, I caught two that weighed almost 18 pounds.
“Folks think summer catfishing is good,” he continued. “They should try it now. Catfishing this time of year is the best there is.”
The long-standing notion that catfishing is best during summer’s heat is folklore. Granted, summer is a blue-ribbon season for catching big cats and lots of them. But it’s not necessarily the best time to catch them. Most year-round catfish anglers agree that the early spring period is tops in terms of channel cat numbers and size.
If you’re not convinced, chum around with a die-hard catfisherman this time of the year. In late February, you’ll find him changing lines, oiling reels and pre-rigging a few special catfishing sets. By early March, months before most anglers begin their catfishing year, this guy is on the water every spare moment. He’s not just fishing either; he’s catching catfish, and lots of them.
It’s sort of like the old saying “The early bird gets the first worm.” Only in this case, “The early bird gets the first cat” — catfish, that is. Get out on prime catfishing waters in your area this season, and you can be “hossing in” early-bird channel cats long before most fishermen have given catfishing a second thought.
WHY THE FISHING IS GOOD
As a general rule, cats respond quicker to anglers’ offerings as spring begins. There are several reasons for this.
First, rain showers hit hard in many areas at this time. A fresh inflow of warm water, plus longer days, raises the water temperature and, consequently, catfish activity increases to peak levels.
Second, catfish are more aggressively feeding this time of year. Winter’s period of reduced rations left the fish with a burgeoning hunger, and now that rising temperatures are stimulating their metabolism, channel cats are constantly on the prowl looking for shad, crayfish, sunfish or other foods to satiate their appetite.
Third, heavy downpours of rain this month have swollen many catfish-laden rivers. The resulting increase in current concentrates catfish in areas where they can escape the excessively heavy flow. The gather in scour holes, creek channel edges, inundated lakes, river backwaters and the like. Higher fish densities mean better catches for savvy cat fans that know where their quarry is likely to be holed up.
In summary, early-spring cats are active, hungry and concentrated in dense schools — not a bad situation if you’re trying to hook one.
WHERE TO FISH
In early spring channel cats, like bass and crappie, are usually found near distinct bottom structure, on or very near the bottom in relatively deep, well-oxygenated water.
In rivers the heaviest catfish avoid the strongest currents in order to conserve energy. Focus your attention on still or slow-moving water, or fish near structural features such as big rocks, holes and bottom channels that break the current and attract concentrations of fish.
Among the best lake and pond structures to fish are fast-breaking stream channels meandering across the bottom. Some can be found using bottom contour maps and a good dose of luck, but most must be pinpointed using a sonar fish-finder, an important tool for cold-water catfishing.
Use sonar to zero in on easily definable channels, as well as subtle drops and ledges. Both are catfish magnets, and in early spring, you’re likely to chart a dozen or more fish ne
ar each structural feature.
Humps on stream and lake bottoms are also hotspots for early-bird catfish. They provide quick travel routes between deep and shallow-water haunts. The tops of humps attract schools of shad and other baitfish, which in turn attract hungry cats. Catfish hold in deeper areas around the hump during bright sunny days, but at night and on cloudy days, they move into shallower reaches to feed. When a bite is on, fishing a hump in early spring can produce catfishing action far better than anything you ever imagined.
If an electrical power plant is adjacent the body of water you’re fishing, be sure to look for catfish in the vicinity. These facilities are “hotspots” in a literal sense of the term. Lake or river water is used to cool internal machinery, and when the water is returned to whence it came, it’s usually much warmer than the surrounding lake or stream.
Baitfish congregate in these warm environs like bathers on a Caribbean beach, and catfish move in to gluttonize the schools. Warmer water raises the metabolic rate of cold-blooded cats, meaning more frequent, active feeding periods during early spring period. Savvy catters take advantage of this unique situation.
Dam tailwaters also produce extraordinary numbers of big cats this time of year. Inundated lakes and ponds in big reservoirs offer catfish deep sanctuary, and if scattered trees or stumps still exist around the perimeter, the potential for fast-paced action is great.
Deep channels beneath bridges, deep-water chutes around river islands, long timbered points jutting into deep water, potholes adjacent the deep end of river wing-dikes, lock-wall edges and tributary mouths-are other areas where early-bird catfish wait.
HOW TO FISH
If you’ve picked the right time to fish on a good lake or stream, and if you’ve managed to pinpoint catfish on your sonar and are now sitting above them in your boat, if weather and water conditions are right and Lady Luck is smiling on you, then 99 percent of your troubles are over. All you must do now is pick the right bait and the right tackle, and soon you’ll be hauling in catfish one after the other. At least we hope so.
Be sure to use sturdy tackle. My all-round preference for channel cats is a 7-foot, one-piece rod with medium-heavy action and a long, trigger-grip handle that allows for double-handed fish fighting. I use a high-capacity baitcasting or spinning reel and spool it with 20- to 50-pound-test braided line, using lighter line when fishing for small cats or in clear water, and heavier line when big cats and muddy water are present.
What rigs to use? There are many, but few more effective than a basic three-way rig, which is adaptable to a wide variety of fishing situations in swift or still water. To make one, tie your main line to one eye of a three-way swivel and drop-lines of 12 and 24 inches on the other two eyes. Tie a needle-sharp, heavy-wire hook on the longer drop and a bell or pyramid sinker to the shorter line. Bait-holder hooks, of 4/0 to 6/0 with short, barbed shanks and back-turned eyes work best with early-season cat baits.
I also like the same-sized circle hooks, which hook the catfish in the corner of the mouth so they can be released alive if desired. The sinker should be heavy enough to carry the bait straight to the bottom regardless of water conditions.
If you’re hoping to catch a trophy-size cat, fish are the best baits because all adult catfish feed primarily on fish. Shad and herring are excellent because they disperse aromatic oils catfish find irresistible. If these aren’t available, consider using live sunfish, suckers or other legal baitfish.
If whole dead or live fish are used for bait, hook the fish through the back just behind the dorsal fin, leaving the barb of the hook exposed.
Cut-baits work equally well for channel cats and are made by simply slicing whole dead baitfish into smaller bite-sized chunks, or cutting fillets or strips off the sides. With cut-baits, also run the hook through once and leave the barb exposed.
When you’re targeting eating-size cats, of up to 5 pounds or so, your bait choices can be much broader. Crayfish and night crawlers are plentiful in early spring, so both are top enticements. Grocery store baits work great as well, such as fresh chicken liver, hot dogs, shrimp, squid or even Hormel Spam. Commercial dough-baits, dip baits and chunk baits also are hard to beat when you’re after eaters.
Whatever bait you use, lower it to the structure where sonar indicates fish are holding, or cast to a likely honey hole. Then decide if you want to use a passive or active approach.
Passive angling is preferred by many because it requires nothing more than sitting and waiting for bite. You and your buddy kick back and chew the fat until a catfish finds your bait and strikes.
If you want to be catching catfish instead of just catfishing, however, an active approach may be more productive. Allow 15 to 30 minutes at each spot and if a bite isn’t forthcoming, reel in your bait and try another locale. If hungry cats are nearby, it shouldn’t take them long to find and take your offering.
It’s typical to find a good spot and catch several cats, then the action tapers off. Once again, it’s time to move and try a different location. Don’t sit in one place hour after hour if nothing’s happening. Travel around. Try this spot, then that. Your catch rate will soar.
Another often-productive active catfishing approach this season is drift-fishing. Use the same three-way rig described earlier, but with leaders 6 inches longer. Put your rod in a sturdy holder, then use a trolling motor to move slowly over and along bottom channels or other catfish-attracti
ng structure. As you move, pull the baited rig on or just above the bottom. Mark spots where cats are caught and drift through again. Where one fish is found, often there are many.
Perhaps you won’t be fortunate enough to land a giant catfish during your outings. Then again, maybe you will. During early spring, you have a better-than-average chance of landing a trophy-class channel cat. At the very least, you should be able to catch numerous eating-size cats that will provide a feast back home.
So be an early bird. And when you get that first worm, use it for catfish bait.